Ever since the Beatles introduced self-determination into the pop music process, pop’s insatiable desire for more of the same has been challenged by a series of inspired musical chameleons who’ve pushed the music forward by refusing to stand still. Think Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, even Madonna.
Neil Young takes a backseat to none of them. Having left Buffalo Springfield after too much creative head-butting with Stephen Stills, the first thing Young did upon achieving solo success in 1969 was to accept the invitation of his nemesis to join Crosby Stills & Nash. That set the tone for a zigzag odyssey that has careened over the decades from gentle folk melodies to activist rock anthems to entire albums of savage feedback.
“Neil never turns corners,” an associate once said. “He ricochets around them.”
His superb new album, “Chrome Dreams II,” almost could be a primer for his extraordinary range. And the format of his current tour - acoustic and electric sets and a band composed of alumni from his most beloved backing units (Crazy Horse, Stray Gators, Bluenotes) - allows for maximum capacity to surprise.
To celebrate rock’s quickest-change artist, we’ve unscientifically selected five of Neil Young’s greatest left turns. Throw a dart at his crazy quilt career, and wherever it lands will be different from everything surrounding it. The secret of this ceaseless change is that when he happens to alight in a musical place he’s visited before, it makes even the familiar feel fresh and slightly exotic.
1. “Expecting to Fly” from “Buffalo Springfield Again” (1967)
This was recorded the month before the release of “Sgt. Pepper,” and there are those who’ll trade the entire Beatles masterpiece for these 3 minutes 45 seconds of hallucinogenic art song. Young’s first collaboration with composer and Spector Wall of Sound arranger Jack Nitzsche established that Buffalo Springfield’s dark horse was capable of anything.
2. “Tonight’s the Night” (recorded 1973)
Having built a handsome platinum box bordered by electric Crazy Horse on one side and acoustic “Heart of Gold” on the other, Young smashed it to pieces with this dark, drunken meditation on rock’s seamy underside. Prompted by the overdose deaths of two colleagues, this remains as harrowing a document as pop music has produced.
3. The Ducks (1977)
When he should have been out promoting a new album, Young disappeared for several months to recharge his batteries by playing coastal dives as a semi-anonymous sideman with this Santa Cruz, Calif., bar band. It worked. His busman’s holiday was followed by two classics, “Comes a Time” and “Rust Never Sleeps.”
4. The 1980s
After delivering his new label the unfathomable mechanistic techno of “Trans” followed by the campy rockabilly of “Everybody’s Rockin,’ ” Young was sued by Geffen Records for making unrepresentative albums. Young’s reaction? He shrugged, released a traditional country album and embarked on a tour of county fairs supported by Waylon Jennings and the Judds. The message: Don’t fence him in!
5. “Mirrorball” (1995)
Young spent much of the `90s interfacing with modern music. He brought Sonic Youth and Social Distortion on tour, addressed Kurt Cobain on the title track of “Sleeps with Angels” and recorded “Mirrorball” with backing from Pearl Jam. Successful new performers often sponsor collaborations with venerated elders, but Young turned the tables by challenging the young bucks, and his old audience, to keep up. Long may he run.
// Notes from the Road
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